Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sothern Comfort

Not exactly a name to trip off the tongue of the average Joe on the street, nevertheless, Miss Ann Sothern is known to classic film and TV buffs and admired for her effervescent personality and striking looks.

Sothern got her film career started as one of the many Goldwyn Girls who were pretty chorus dancers utilized in films produced by, natch, Samuel Goldwyn. (Her lifelong friend Lucille Ball started this way along with her.) Eddie Cantor frequently used them and she appeared in his film 1930 Whoopee! However, by 1934, she had managed to elevate her career to the point where she was a featured costar of the film Kid Millions, singing several lovely songs and looking beautiful throughout.

Sothern struggled to get a secure foothold with a studio until finally landing at MGM and winning over the movie-going public with a string of Maisie films, about a brassy Brooklyn dancer who finds herself in all sorts of comedic and romantic escapades. Originally intended for the by then deceased Jean Harlow, Sothern made ten of these films from 1939 to 1947 while alternating them with musicals or more dramatic fare.

She eventually took the role to radio where her incredibly distinctive and melodious voice enthralled listeners. Though few really significant film roles came her way in spite of her continuous work, she did costar in one bonafide classic in 1949, which was A Letter to Three Wives. She, herself, was married twice, once to an actor named Roger Pryor from 1936 to 1943 and then immediately to Robert Sterling (who would later become the longstanding spouse of Anne Jeffreys) until 1949.

By the early 50s, she had segued into television where she had tremendous success first with Private Secretary and then with The Ann Sothern Show. (The series were similar and shared supporting cast members, the latter show having been created after a contract dispute with the first show’s producer.) Sothern was noted as portraying TV’s first career woman in a regular series role and did almost 200 episodes in all.

A bout with hepatitis caused the already curvy Miss Sothern to display a far more zaftig figure and she preferred not to be seen this way. She wore almost all black on her television series and masked it as much as possible for a long stretch of time. One way she could continue to work without being seen was in lending her inimitable voice to the legendarily rotten 1965 sitcom My Mother the Car, which had Jerry Van Dyke driving a 1928 Porter which contained the soul of his deceased mom!

Eventually, she began to reemerge despite her plump figure and worked several times with her old pal Ball on The Lucy Show. Sothern always took extreme care with her hair and makeup (dramatic lashes and brows that played up some of the most beautiful eyes ever!) to draw attention there instead of below. She also could appear from the torso up on game shows such as Password where her giddy, infectious personality pleased viewers. (She was so bubbly she could get away with some things other might not, such as slapping a contestant on the nose or forehead if he failed to get her clues!)

In 1964, she began to make film and TV appearances with a bit more regularity after some time away and did a nice cameo in the political drama The Best Man as well as a less prestigious turn as a slovenly, selfish thief in the Olivia de Havilland thriller Lady in a Cage. Pushed around by some young toughs (one of whom was newcomer James Caan!), her character’s fate isn’t even clearly delineated in the finished film!

Her health problems were compounded in the early 70s when a piece of scenery fell on her during a stage appearance, injuring her back.

In 1973, she found herself in a low-budget shocker called The Killing Kind as the quasi-incestuous mother of John Savage. Though the film was made for $3.67, she gave a wonderful performance in it, blowsily fluttering through the scenes in her unique way, spurred on by an odd rivalry with her younger costar. It has become a bit of a cult classic and is a “must see” for fans of Sothern. Also in the film are Ruth Roman and Cindy Williams.

Despite significant billing, she hardly appears at all or has anything much to say in the hellaciously tacky 1978 thriller The Manitou. As the aunt of Susan Strasberg, who has a deformed medicine man growing out of her back (yes, I am serious), Sothern hosts a séance in her parlor that goes wrong. It’s almost worth watching the unbelievably campy and cheesy film (which stars Tony Curtis) just to see Ann in a Marilyn Monroe-esque wig mouthing words to an Indian spirit’s voice before being blown to the floor by a sudden thunderbolt. Her pronunciation of the word “saloon” in the film should be played on an endless loop in every home.

In 1985, her film A Letter to Three Wives was remade for TV and she was given a small role as a bit of stunt casting. A far more significant gift was on the horizon for, in 1987, she was given a part in The Whales of August, a film that united screen legends Lillian Gish and Bette Davis for the first time. The ladies played tenuously cohabitating sisters and Sothern appeared as their neighbor and friend. In flashback scenes, Sothern’s own daughter Tisha Sterling played her as a young lady. A startling surprise came in the way of an Oscar nomination for Sothern, only 60 years after she had first started working in the movies! She lost the statuette to Olympia Dukakis for Moonstruck, but was happy to have officially ended her career on a high note such as that.

Believe it or not, Sothern lived until 2001 when she died at 92 years of age. She knew when to end her career and simply enjoy the rest of her years the best she could. In spite of the great pleasure that she gave to audiences through her films, songs, TV shows and stage appearances, she could be very pragmatic about all of it, once being quoted as saying: “Sometimes I'll watch an old movie on television and, once in a while, one of mine, such as April Showers, will come on and I'll watch it. And you know something? I'm always amazed at what a lousy actress I was. I guess in the old days we just got by on glamour.” Miss Ann Sothern did have glamour in spades, but she also underestimated her own talent, for she could seemingly do it all, from comedy to music to drama and back again.


Ima June Pullet said...

Thank you for yet another thoughtful, informative post. I used to watch "The Ann Sothern Show" (and probaby "Private Secretary") when I was a kid in the 50's and I always thought she was the cutest, most vivacious thing. Ahead of her time as a role model too, given the nature of the era with its emphasis on a woman's highest achievement being marriage!

Paul said...

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is genius! You must give it another try. Stella is great in it, and how can you not love Tamara Dobson's make-up or her sidekick, Tanny? Her kidnapped hunky agents? The climax, in which she rides around, I seem to remember in a motorcycle sidecar, through the casino, screaming, "KIll 'em all!" The whole film is a wonder.